Solving Industry Problems: Digitally!

Someone recently commented to me that publishing is in a state of crisis, and gave a list of various problems facing the industry. I looked at his list, and realized two things. First, he was right - publishing is facing a lot of problems.

Second, that digital technology and distribution were on their way to solving many of those problems.

The list of problems was very different from the ones we hear so often. Nothing about indie bookstores being in trouble, or bad contracts, or the other stuff. It was all meta-analysis of the industry as a whole, and therefore kinda interesting! I thought I'd give a few of those problems AND the likely solutions here. The solutions that are already happening are happening because of digital. Or perhaps a better way of putting it: digital is happening, and happening so fast in book publishing, because digital presents new solutions to many longstanding industry issues.

 

We have a younger generation which is more focused on "gizmos" than on literacy.

That younger demographic is encouraged to read by the very devices they want to use; the internet is a blossoming ground of reading and writing, and it's becoming well understood that those who can write well and in a convincing manner can attract a large audience to their work through that medium. The internet mandates a certain level of literacy.

 

Fiction today seems mostly dominated by tired plots and bad writing.

The tired plots are largely due to major publishers attempting to guess what readers want to read - and then overproducing tons of that specific band of content. Digital publishing, in contrast, opens the doors for ALL content (which means yes, a lot is bad). Readers then get to decide for themselves what is good and what is not; what they want to read and what they don't. Readers as a group are *exceptionally* good at this.

 

Literature is lacking in notable masters, and often less skilled writers are marketed as "masters" of their craft without merit.

It's been hard to determine who the true "master" level writers of fiction are, because fiction sales were dominated by publishers with narrow buying requirements, sponsored book placement, and big ticket marketing moves. Again, digital opens the doors for people with mastery to do very, very well (by reaching an audience!); with virtually unlimited choice of books, and the ability to sample them all for free, readers simply aren't going to buy books they don't like. Mastery of writing implies the ability to reach readers: masters of writing fiction will do remarkably well in a free market. On the plus side for publishers, freedom to publish gives them a chance to learn (by watching for successful work) which writers are masters of their craft.

 

Longer works are the norm, giving readers less time to explore more books.

Longer books were, again, the result of print retail demands in a print dominated market. Digital books have no physical shelf space. My 3k word short stories are selling at a slow but steady pace; so is my 45k word novel. In fact, there is strong evidence that while most readers prefer novels in the 60-100k word range even in ebook form that there is a growing desire among readers for shorter novels (40-60k words). And those shorter works are certainly more profitable for the writers creating them (more than twice as hard to write a 100k word novel as a 50k word one, in my experience; but income does not even double and often does not go up at all). Short stories, novellas, and short novels are back and growing in a big way.

 

The price of many books is prohibitive, especially in a still-recovering economy.

Books are getting less expensive. Writers can now sell an ebook for $4.99 - and earn about six times as much per copy as they used to get for an $8 paperback. Even selling at the lowball 99 cents, a writer will earn only pennies less per copy sold than they earn from that $8 paperback. Ebooks open the door for books to become less expensive, easier to acquire, and more abundant in terms of selection choice. Publishers are finding ways to reduce their expenses to compete with these lower cost works (or are simply losing market share). Lower prices are good for the readers and the market.

 

Digital SOLVES problems.

Digital isn't just growing because it's the "cool new thing". It is growing precisely because it DOES solve so many of the problems with which publishing has been faced. The end of returns, which are a huge money sink for publishers. The opening of new options for writers. The ability for publishers to use self published books as a "farm league" from which to pick winners for future representation, and the associated ability for writers to tell them *no*, if the deal isn't good enough.

Are there other problems in the industry you can think of? How can we push technology to help solve those problems? Looking at the problems an industry has today is the key to seeing what the changes will be in that industry tomorrow.